Posts Tagged ‘ Being Jewishly ’

Knubel Borscht: Adapting Memory

2011.04.20
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TUCKED INTO MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER’S BIBLE is a yellowed sheet of paper containing the flavor of living tradition.

In short, it’s my mom’s recipe for knubel borscht (pronounced “k’nubble”): beef simmered in beet soup and garlic. That’s it: three ingredients, plus heat and time. Perhaps in part due to its simplicity, or that I’ve been eating it for most of my childhood Pesachs, knubel borscht is satisfying on a soul level. It fills the house with a scent at once sweet and savory, fruity and meaty, and which may in fact prove to be the smell of Gan Eden should the requisite air-sampling technology be designed and utilized.

The recipe originally comes from “the old country” (in our case, my Polish g’g'father or his Romanian wife); the original calls for a large pot, 5 quarts of borscht, 7-1/2 pounds of bone-in chuck roast with a packet of soup bones, and a large head of peeled garlic. Add everything together, simmer three hours or more, skimming off the foam; serve on plate and in bowl.

For our Seder Monday night, I created a lower-portion variant which is just as pleasing in all the essentials and doesn’t really suffer for the lack of soup bones. Four ingredients counting the pan:

9″ Pyrex baking pan
1 pound brisket
Quart of borscht
Head of garlic

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Peel and chop garlic. Put brisket in pan fat side up (trim excess fat first). Sprinkle garlic on top, pour over borscht, seal with aluminum foil. Three hours later, you’ll need a knife to cut through the aroma and open the oven. Put the meat on a plate, the soup in a bowl, and revel in the small blessings by which G?d or the quantum membranes thereof sustain and nurture the world.

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“And To Our Jewish Friends, ‘Shalom!’”

2011.04.01
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1. THE FOLKS AT WHOLE FOODS’ Sonoma branch were trying to do the right thing. Last week, I noted that their refrigerated Passover display contained some sixers of He’Brew Beer (unaffiliated with but heartily endorsed by Metaphorager.Net). Fermented grain being Passoverly inappropriate, and wanting to save the store some face, I mentioned this to one of the managers (“This isn’t offensive, just incongruous to knowledgeable shoppers.”). As of yesterday, the beer is now gone — but the other freestanding display now features cocktail rye breads and two boxes of hamantaschen.

(I love hamantaschen, which are poppyseed-filled Purim cookies. I love them even more on Purim, which holiday occurred two weeks ago. But I really love the human impulse to make the customer comfortable, even if we don’t know what her comfort level is.)

2. If you’re in the Sonoma area tomorrow, join us for “painless Torah study” (no experience necessary) from 10 am to noonish. Our portion is Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59; Haftorah: II Kings 4:42-5:19). Call 707.933.9430 for directions.)

3. I am way pleased to announce that PunkTorah.Org has published one of my divrei Torah at http://punktorah.org/dvar-torah/ (the one titled “D’var Tazria & Itchy Skin Diseases”). PunkTorah is what you get when young people play in the vast Jewish landscape with today’s tools, yesterday’s texts and eternal enthusiasm. (They have an online minyan, or prayer meet, three times a day!) Nachum-Bob says “check ‘em out.”

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Why Is Purim Like Yom Kippur?

2011.03.16
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“Yom Kippur brings the joy of teshuvah; Purim the teshuvah of joy.”

(TO UNDERSTAND THIS, YOU NEED to know that this was my response to Rabbi David Wolpe‘s Facebook post this morning. “Every Jewish holiday has its partner,” he said, and asked what ties together Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Purim, which begins Saturday night and celebrates a thwarted plot to kill the Jews of Persia.

(R’ Wolpe’s favorite equivalence is from R’ Jack Riemer: “On Purim we put masks on; on YK we take them off.” Purim, in other words, is about the teshuvah (repentance, or transcendence) of illusion. But Jews have been pondering this relationship for centuries. Purim is a very boisterous holiday where people dress up in outlandish costumes and drink until the lines blur between friend and enemy. Yom Kippur is a solemn accounting of mistakes and deliberate errors.

(My favorite Chasidic view of all this is that Yom Kippur (which some interpret “Day Like Purim”), as a day of teshuvah through forgiveness, is even happier than Purim: “How not, when all our sins are forgiven?” So my answer: that as intense teshuvah brings joy, intense joy brings teshuvah.

(But you knew that, right? Happy Purim/Chag Purim Sameach!)

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When Tefilin Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Lay Tefilin

2011.03.14
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Fig. 1.


March 14, 2011 (JTA) — An Alaska Airlines flight crew issued a security alert after three Mexican Orthodox Jews began praying with tefillin.

The flight attendants, who were concerned by the prayers being said aloud in Hebrew and the unfamiliar boxes with leather straps hanging from them, locked down the cockpit and radioed a security alert ahead to Los Angeles International Airport. (See: http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/03/14/3086391/alaska-airlines-detains-passengers-over-tefillin.)

(This sort of thing Nearly Happened To Me, in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in early 2002: the onlookers were a couple of antsy early-morning passengers watching me “wrap up” in a terminal alcove. “It’s a Jewish prayer thing,” I said, and left it at that. They were mollified, I met my obligations, and the world survived another day.)

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My Plan For Jewish World Domination

2011.01.26
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(YOU MAY READ THAT TITLE as either “domination of the world by Jews,” or “domination of the Jewish world.” Either way, it may be better than what we have now, or at least more entertaining. Certainly more well-fed. But.)

The point is this: Build fewer Museums of Tolerance and Holocaust Memorials. In fact, stop building them altogether, and instead build more Jewish schools/centers, for both kids and adults to interact face-to-face with well-trained Jewish teachers. We cannot help but carry the past, of course — but with our hands full, who will build our future?

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The Yad In The Kitchen

2011.01.17
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IN ONE OF OUR KITCHEN cabinets is a knot shaped like the Hebrew letter “yad.” It’s something we’ve lived with for 11 years but only pondered tonight.

Fig. 1.

According to some of Judaism’s lesser-publicized traditions, “yad” as the first letter of the yad-heh-vav-heh — God’s most holy name — is associated with the element of fire, the tongue of the flame of holy generation and inspiration, which is also the Godhead (that concentrated chunk of God located in the human soul). “Yad” also literally means “hand.” It is also the little sculptured wand (tipped by a hand and pointing finger) which indicate passages in the Torah, itself considered as one long Name of God.

Fig. 1.

So: Yad is the seat of intuition; it is also the hand guided by intuition, and which points to the Sourceless Source of that intuition (and everything else). In orbis veritas. That it’s on the flour cabinet, proves the divinity in food — and ingenuity.

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Sorting Debbie

2011.01.10
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IN THE WAKE OF SINGER and prolific synagogue-music innovator Debbie Friedman, I find myself mourning her death but ambivalent about her legacy.

The mourning: If you worship at most “progressive” (i.e., non-Orthodox) North American synagogues, you’re familiar with her work (particularly the Mishebeirach, a prayer for healing which was recently (some say “at last”) canonized in the new Reform prayerbook). But if you ever saw Ms. Friedman in concert, you really saw her. The woman fairly glowed. Not literally, but in the eyes of the mind: huge radiating love-and-wonder vibes not really all that different from a Grateful Dead show, and from which people depart laughing, woohooing, and singing to themselves for days afterward. She was a great and phenomenal talent who brought a lot of joy to this end of the universe and, as is so often the case, the world seems a bit darker for her absence.

The ambivalence: While introducing folk music to the service makes the service, or rather the joy inherent, more accessible, it can also turn the service into a sing-along. And, even as a happily compulsive singer-along, that’s not why I attend services. At one time or another it has been my pleasure to attend Grateful Dead concerts, coven circles, Mass, church, a Buddhist shrine and various other experiential constructs. I found each of them beautiful and, in a sense, useful. But none of them move me in the way of a book-and-dream-fragrant silence, woven through with wordless murmurings and solemn chanting of the ancient heart-known Hebrew. It is, to me, authentic, which is to say familiar and challenging in a way that singing along not quite is.

“One man’s meat” is a proverb in many tongues and times. But when someone like a Debbie Friedman passes out of the world, it makes many other things feel small. Thank you, Ms. Friedman, for making Earth a bit bigger for a while.

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David Mamet’s Christmas Wishes

2011.01.04
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From our Wish-We’d-Found-This-Two-Weeks-Ago department: Over on Tablet, playwright David Mamet literally pens a Christmas card to the Jews from the Chinese “who do not completely understand your dietary customs.” To say more would sound horribly post-facto; let’s say instead we’re being early for next year.

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Fsssss. Pop!

2011.01.01
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Happy Solar Calendrical Artifact Of The Hated Romans Who Destroyed Our Holy Temple May Their Names Be Effaced New Year!
Raise your hands, everyone who detected the irony.

(Everyone who detected the irony, raise your hands.)

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“What do YOU like about being a spiritual leader?”

2010.12.29
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THIS QUESTION WAS POSED TO me by a friend who’s considering the path. Since I have some small experience with the subject, and some readers have some interest in it, I’m posting my reply here and will be absolutely unoffended if you skip it.

Wow. No one’s ever asked me that before, so I needed to take some serious time to think about it before replying. So first, thank you for an interesting think.

Before I reply, you need to know that I’m currently off the rabbi thing; partly because I made an unsuccessful bid earlier this year to serve my synagogue in this capacity, and since I now know I only wanted to “be a rabbi” for this community (and despite that everybody still treats me as a spiritual leader) it seems rather moot to continue my studies. But there are other reasons as well. That said, there were certainly aspects I “liked,” or more accurately, found rewarding.

The best thing to me about “being a spiritual leader” is making a difference for people in a direct, immediate way. People come to services for many reasons — duty, support, inspiration, help, grief, socializing and sometimes even to pray. To at least offer a moment of connection for those who need it is incredibly fulfilling; to have it accepted, even more so. (I always feel like I learned most about leading services by hawking for Greg; it’s important to be able to read the crowd and respond appropriately and immediately.)

But leading is not just services. Depending on the tradition you embrace, you may also be witness to (and help facilitate) some of the most powerful moments in someone’s life. What I like most about this, perhaps selfishly, is that there’s no room for yourself in these moments — you must be a pure conduit for those involved — and for a heavy egotist like me the experience is wonderfully freeing.

This next may be a specifically Jewish thing (on account of the heavy rabbinical teacher’s role), but there is also a particular joy in seeing people get excited about their really, really old heritage: that moment of “Ohhhh … THAT’S why we do this.” It’s fun to share the things which excite us. It’s also very scary to be the one passing along a tradition — you want to get it right, and you want to get it relevant — but I think a proper spiritual leader needs a certain amount of insecurity.

Seeing people smile when you enter a room is also a nice benefit. But be careful of being praised beyond your capacity to accept. Gracefully accepting gratitude is something I’m still trying to master; what I do comes naturally to me, partly perhaps because I /don’t/ see myself as being altogether worthy of doing it. I just allow it all to happen, that’s all. Like the old Grateful Dead lyric about the storyteller: “His job is to shed light, not to master.”

That’s all I can think of at the moment. I hope it helps you in some way.

Be well, good luck, and blessings.

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“What A Time We Might Have Had”

2010.12.24
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THE TITLE IS TAKEN FROM a line in Mark Twain’s Roughing It, and it always comes to mind when I hear someone (or myself) voice a regret. I don’t carry many of these — not out of “holiness;” it just doesn’t occur to me — and I only say it out loud whenever Ann regrets something trivial: “That Twilight Zone episode was on last night” or “The store was out of Brand X” or even “Looks like they’re not repealing the Patriot Act.” It’s part of the private language of married people who’ve been married long enough to know and willingly co-conspire with each other’s zigs, zags and wild-eyed lunacies.

Knowing the right thing to say is an art, although less so than knowing what not to say. Speech is a gamble — speech during a crisis more so. I was once on a wooden boat which was about to be hit by a much, MUCH bigger freighter and actually found myself saying, “You know? It really has been good knowing you all.” It seemed appropriate at the time, and still does in memory, but I wasn’t trying to be witty. “Wit” sometimes backfires; in my youth, I once repeated to an arriving roommate a phone message containing a racial slur about the man right behind him. (Did I say “wit?” Meant “twit.” Among the other lessons learned: There is no convenient trap door anywhere.)

But sometimes the “time we might have had” is too good to ignore. I’m specifically thinking of this tonight, which is Christmas Eve for Christians and Erev Shabbat for Jews. Adding Eid would be wondrously ecumenicalendrical. (Since Islam uses a purely lunar calendar, it could still conceivably happen.) Billions of the world’s faithful could sit apart together, munching ham, chicken and lamb, and wondering what the other fellow’s up to. Braver, more moneyed souls could host Shabbeidmas parties and try not to look uncomfortable. Songs and laughter and happy curiosity could rule the day, and perhaps the days after.

What a time we might yet have.

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Anatomy and Metaphysiology: States of Grace or Tangent

2010.12.10
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PERHAPS BEFORE DELVING DEEPER INTO Things Glimpsed it would be helpful to explain my terms, and how I arrived at them.

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated/obssessed/entranced by “God,” or the “Great Spirit,” or “It What Is” or more specifically the undisclosable Reality behind those words. I was often taken aback by such pop-in-the-head questions as “What came before God?” or “What would an infinitely tall stack of paper cups look like?” or “Does the bathroom wallpaper really have little toilets all over it, or does it just look that way to me?” (Sadly, ’twas the former.)

I say this to tell you that I’ve been both looking for and halfway expecting Weird Inner Experiences all my life. When they actually began happening, though, I honestly didn’t know what to make of them. Read more »

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